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Keeler 09 grabs top honors in Thalheimer Student Entrepreneurship Competition

George Keeler '09

A hiking enthusiast and avid outdoorsman, George Keeler ’09 has collected six backpacks over the last few years, always liking certain features but never finding one that completely fit his needs.

Then again, he’s a pretty demanding customer. Keeler honed his passion for the outdoors in countless family trips to the Adirondacks, and his adventurous spirit made him a good fit for REI, an outdoor gear store where he’s worked during his summer vacations.

It’s there he learned about the demand for rugged gear that has crossover appeal into other markets—like upscale fashion accessories and the trend-conscious student population.

“I owned quite a few backpacks, but I never had luck finding one that is multifaceted and functional for both the students and the outdoor enthusiast,” he says. “So I went to work designing my own.”

Dozens of sketches and five prototypes later, Keeler unveiled his G-paK backpack to friends and family—and the Lehigh community. The ingenious contraption was well received, ultimately capturing the grand prize in the 2008 Joan F. & John M. Thalheimer ’55 Student Entrepreneurs Competition.

“Most competitive contest yet”

The results of the competition were released yesterday by Lisa Getzler-Linn, director of the Thalheimer Student Entrepreneurship Contest and associate director of Lehigh’s Integrated Product Development program. Keeler and his peers will be officially recognized in an event scheduled for January.

“Lehigh fosters such a great environment for entrepreneurship,” says Getzler-Linn. “There are over 20 programs that have an entrepreneurial flare that span each of our four colleges. This competition really challenges students, regardless of their background, to bring their ideas to life in a way that’s not offered at many other universities.”

“This was the most competitive contest yet,” she added, “and every one of the entries was substantial and well thought out. It was a difficult decision, but George’s backpack really has immediate potential.”

Keeler, a marketing and design arts double major, captured top honors in contest’s largest field since the competition began at Lehigh University in 2002. He receives a $5,000 grant to further develop his prototype and earned a trip to Advanced Invention to Venture, a three-day workshop at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque that was fully sponsored by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance. The workshop pairs young entrepreneurs with professionals in an accelerated venture setting, where the participants’ business plans are scrutinized and strengthened.

Keeler’s waterproof G-paK features an innovative drawstring closure system, is extremely lightweight, and can be compacted into a pouch the size of a wallet. It’s designed to hide compartments specifically geared for iPods and other valuables.

A proven track record

His product follows a long line of Lehigh success stories. Four previous winners of the contest have all started their own business ventures after capturing top honors, eventually setting up their companies in the Lehigh Valley. Michael McCreary ’07, the 2007 contest winner, officially opened the Lehigh Valley Grand Prix with business partner Chris Cooper ’06 this past July in Allentown.

Lehigh graduates who launched Viddler, EcoTech Marine and hField Technologies have all located their companies in Bethlehem’s southside neighborhood, a few blocks from Lehigh’s campus. Not only did each win the Thalheimer, but the students who founded these companies have also received grants from both the Keystone Innovation Zone (KIZ) and Ben Franklin Technology Partners.

Though they are in different stages, each technology company is now earning income and has hired employees.

Lehigh’s Innovation Bootcamp

Recognizing the cross-disciplinary interest in entrepreneurship at Lehigh, ten of the entries in this year’s competition have been invited to participate in the university’s upcoming Entrepreneurship & Innovation Bootcamp. The workshop will pair Lehigh students with local entrepreneurs, who will help them refine their business plans and models.

Other award recipients of the 2008 Thalheimer Student Entrepreneurship Competition include:

• MPlug (First Prize, $3,000 award): Designed to assist elderly persons with arthritis or weak grip strength, the MPlug reduces the force necessary to plug and unplug an appliance. Submitted by Greg Capece ’10, Mike Harm ’10, and Nick Rocha ’10, all integrated business and engineering (IBE) students.

• Spotsie (Second Prize, $2,000 award): Officially launched in October 2007, Spotsie.com is a social networking site that connects landlords with students conveniently and easily. Submitted by Michael Gioia ’08, computer science and business (CSB), and Madison Berndt ‘08, a behavior and neurological science (BNS) and psychology double major.

• Honorable Mentions ($500 each team): Collegiate Calendar—Matt Scheller ’08 (architecture); Culture of Conversation—Will Brehm ’08 (international relations); MASC—Joe Varco ’09 (molecular biology); Muscular Innovation—David Schlumph ’07 G’08 and Tyler Susko ’07 G’08 (undergraduate: IBE /graduate: mechanical engineering).

--Tom Yencho

Posted on Tuesday, December 11, 2007

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